A 12-1 season certainly helped the University of Notre Dame football team add something tangible to the message a Brian Kelly-led staff has preached since December of 2009. But most of the legwork required to net the 24 young men that signed with the Fighting Irish on National Signing Day Wednesday came on the heels of Notre Dame’s second consecutive 8-5 campaign in 2011.
Brian Kelly unveiled his 2013 recruiting class on National Signing Day Wednesday, one ranked No. 5 by 247Sports.
Nineteen players committed prior to the start of the season, with a Fighting Irish run to the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama helping to top off the 2013 recruiting class, one ranked No. 5 by 247Sports behind two-time defending champ Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and Ohio State. The Irish will also welcome preferred walk-on punter Andrew Antognoli, who opted for Notre Dame over at least two Ivy League institutions.
The goal, as it is with every program, is to address high-priority needs, restock the shelves and build depth on both sides of the football. For a Notre Dame program that didn’t even have 85 scholarship players last fall, including a thin offensive line group that affected how the Irish prepared down the stretch, this year’s class seems to check off all the boxes — or as Kelly explained, helped close the gap between ND and perennial powers such as the Crimson Tide.
“Our future is predicated on the last game that you play, so we begin today by talking about what our future’s going to look like,” Kelly said. “I think we all know, and I’ve made it pretty clear, that after the last game you play, you want to be taking that next step forward. For us, taking that next step forward is to continue to build our football program within, and developing football players, so when they get back on the field in 2013 we finish it off. This class is that first step towards finishing off 2013.”
This cycle, which includes early enrollees Steve Elmer (OL), James Onwualu (WR), Malik Zaire (QB), Corey Robinson (WR) and Mike Heuerman (TE), delivered building blocks in the form of five offensive linemen, four defensive backs, four wide receivers, a quarterback, two tight ends, a pair of defensive linemen, a trio of linebackers, two running backs and four wide receivers. Four-star running back Tarean Folston out of Cocoa, Fla., sent in his signed Letter of Intent later in the afternoon, and Kelly did not have an opportunity to talk about the ball carrier at the head coach's noon media session.
The class, compiled from 15 states (and Washington, D.C.) is headlined by five-star outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, a product of Bishop Luers High in Fort Wayne, Ind., who is rated the No. 5 overall prospect in the country by 247Sports, and five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, who hails from Placer High in Auburn, Calif. Vanderdoes, the nation's No. 6 overall prospect, the top player at his position in the country and the No. 2 overall recruit in California, signed with the Irish around later Wednesday evening.
The class also includes four-star talents such as Max Redfield, a safety from Mission Viejo, Calif., offensive tackle Hunter Biven (Owensboro, Ky.), cornerback Cole Luke (Chandler, Ariz.), defensive end Isaac Rochell (Mcdonough, Ga.), running back Greg Bryant (Delray Beach, Fla.), offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey (Philadelphia), tight end Durham Smythe (Belton, Texas), cornerback Devin Butler (Washington, D.C.) and athlete/cornerback Rashad Kinlaw (Absecon, N.J.).
“Nowhere in the country does an assistant coach have to do as much as they do at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We’re recruiting coast to coast, from Massachusetts to California. Our coaches have to be there. It’s not just about a particular geographical location. It’s also about getting coaches and position coaches in different areas. We’re going to have 15 states represented, but we were in over 25 states. We were in many others, but we were just setting up for 2014.”
The last consensus top-5 finish for Notre Dame was in 2008, when former head coach Charlie Weis nabbed Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, Dayne Crist, Darius Fleming, Trevor Robinson, Steve Filer, Ethan Johnson, Braxston Cave and Kapron Lewis-Moore, among others.
“This class, it really addresses some of our depth needs across the board,” Kelly added. “We played the national championship game under 85 scholarships. We did not have 85 scholarship players at that time. We had some depth issues, and I think we’ve addressed those depth issues across the board in year three. We targeted in year one and two, we addressed comprehensively needs throughout the entire class in year three. That’s what I’m most excited about is that now we’ll have the depth in certain areas that we felt like we did not have in 2012.
“We’ve got 15 states represented. Another quality we were really looking for were winners. I think the winning percentage of this group — we did some numbers, crunched some numbers — is like 74-percent winning percentage. These kids come from winning programs, have won state championships. So across the board, they represent everywhere in terms of geographics, but they represent winners as it relates to the kind of player that we want.”
Kelly avoided the sting of last year’s National Signing Day, which included the decommitment of highly touted wide receiver Deontay Greenberry, who chose Houston at the last second.
“I think what we did this year is we made sure where that commitment was,” Kelly said. “If you’re committed, that means you’ve ended this recruiting process. I think in some instances, being firmer towards that aspect allowed [last minute-surprises] not to take shape. Now, I’m going to tell you, these are young guys. Things happen every year, and I think you have to be prepared for that, too.”
There’s no denying the impact a title game appearance made when it came to putting a bow on this year’s crop.
“I think it’s crucial; I think you have to have both [solid recruiting and a stellar win-loss record] to be able to get the players like a Greg Bryant,” Kelly added. “It can’t just be on academics. We don’t want them coming to Notre Dame just because of academics. We want the whole piece. This was an indication — the 12 wins — definitely helps you in that process with a Greg Bryant.
“We had 19 committed before the season started. The guys we got late, I think winning definitely had something to do with that.”
Check back here at BlueandGold.com for much more on National Signing Day, including Kelly’s individual player breakdowns, his thoughts on recruiting rules changes and the 2014 cycle.